Sunday, 16 March 2014

MH370 vanishing - an experiment or a practical joke gone terrifyingly wrong?

There's enough outrage and enough conspiracy theories floating around about MH370, so I suppose one more outrageous theory doesn't come to mind. From aliens and meteorites to hijacking, all sorts of things have come up and all seemed equally likely, and now hijacking of some sort seems the most viable option. But there's the question of motive, which has yet to be answered - why has no terrorist organization claimed responsibility, and what is the motive of a possible hijacker? An airplane that flies around for hours after being hijacked is not likely under the control of a suicidal pilot or a 9/11 suicide bomber.

There were 20 employees of Freescale Semiconductors on board and Freescale works on military technology like radar jammers. Conspiracy theorists suspect that these men were either the target of the hijacking, or were responsible for it and used Freescale's technology to cover up the airplane's radar signature. That latter idea is wrong - and stupid because you can't just bring a radar jammer inside a 777's fuselage and expect it to work (Try bringing that kind of thing in cabin baggage in the first place). Besides, the plane was tracked throughout.

But here comes Hugo Teso. Teso proves that it is possible to hack into a modern airliner's computer systems using nothing more than an android phone, and that "cyber-jacking" an airliner is possible with nothing more than a smartphone app! And the hacker needn't even be on the plane!!! Wow.

Even if MH370 was cyber-jacked remotely by a mobile phone, that doesn't answer basic questions about the hijacking, like who, why, and where. The "how" isn't nearly enough.

One especially outrageous possibility comes up, in the midst of all this worry and fear and terror : an experiment, or a practical joke by someone onboard. Someone could have been testing Teso's cyber-hacking app by hacking into the airliner's computer, and then sent it off-track just for the sake of scaring the daylights out of the pilots. For kicks, the hacker made the flight instruments display the wrong information, or shifted the plane onto its old flight path. The pilots may not even have noticed the plane turning if they were sitting, especially if it were a very shallow bank. A sleepy or distracted pilot may not even realize that they're off-course. Trouble with the radios might be put down to an electronic fault.

And what happens after this? The hacker, oblivious to the damage done or expecting the joke to be harmless, goofs off for a while longer, and maybe goes to sleep, expecting the plane to head back on course to Beijing with two very annoyed pilots on the flight deck. A classic case of internet trolling, eh?

Except that whenever the pilots realized that the plane was flying all the way off course, it would have been too late. They probably expected the body of water they were flying over to be the South China Sea, and turned port (left), expecting to go back onto the Chinese mainland, when they were in fact heading over the Andaman Sea and had turned out in the middle of the Southern Indian Ocean, one of the most desolate stretches of open water on the planet.

And what happens next? They're flying for hours, and by the time the sun comes up and is in the wrong position at the wrong time, the aircraft is totally lost and out of sight for everyone, the hacked instruments and radio have been messed up so badly that they can't send any messages or even figure out where they are. Maybe they realize that Australia or India is the closest land to their location and turn that way, or maybe they meander about with their hacked instruments and finally run out of fuel at sea.

Worst practical joke or software experiment ever? Possibly. It's not a pleasant theory, but what can be pleasant, with 239 people missing and probably dead, and the entire world flummoxed?


  1. What do you make of this possibility?

    1. Assuming that the last communication by the plane was made before the electrical fire broke out, yes, that's very likely. But that requires the autopilot to default to an earlier navigation setting and make the turns seen on the radar. If the autopilot could fly the plane onto a different flight path while the other equipment was disabled by fire, Chris Goodfellow is right.